Unleash your inner dragon Published Jan. 21, 2009 By Staff Sgt. Nestor Cruz 18th Wing Public Affairs KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- In a few months, the weather will be warmer, flowers will bloom and the beaches will fill with sun worshippers. Another sign that spring has come will be noticeable at Naha Port, where the air will be filled with the sound of cheering spectators and the rhythmic beat of a metal gong. Those sounds mean one thing: Okinawan dragon boat racing. This annual tradition traces its origin to 13th century China and the tale of Kutsugen, a war hero who committed suicide after being falsely accused of betraying the Emperor. Saddened by the news of Kutsugen's death, the Emperor held a dragon boat race in his honor. The King of the Ryukyu Islands was moved by this story and decided to hold dragon boat races on what is now known as the island of Okinawa. Naha Port plays host to the dragon boat races or "hares" every year on May 5, capping off the Japanese Golden Week holidays. The dragon boat teams, composed of 32 rowers, board long fiberglass boats painted to resemble mythical seafaring dragons. Although the race lasts only about five minutes, it seems like forever to those rowing as the teams physically push their bodies to the limit. Spectators cheer on as approximately 50 teams battle it out to see who is the fastest. Eight teams are composed of the men and women from U.S. Forces Japan. This year will mark the ninth time USFJ will participate in the race fielding Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force teams. I've been a member of the Air Force men's team for two years and my wife was a member of the women's team last year. If it wasn't for my upcoming PCS in April, we would be trying out for this year's teams. Instead, I'm writing this to encourage as many people as possible to try out for the men's and women's teams. Dragon boat racing is an amazing experience for three reasons: physical fitness, ambassadorship and and competition. Three times a week, the team meets at the Overton Pool for rowing practice. Technique and synchronization are the first things the coaches focus on. In later weeks, the focus shifts to endurance. Sure, I'll admit chopping water for more than two minutes kicks my butt, but it's a great workout for anybody. The team will also get the opportunity to train with members from the Japan Air Self Defense Force team in Naha. This team is pretty hardcore - training all year. But they're not above sharing their expertise with Americans, which ties into ambassadorship. Being a part of the Air Force dragon boat team is a great opportunity to interact with the local community, from training with the JASDF team to sharing festival food with Okinawan racers on race day. Dragon boat racing is a positive way of showing our interest in local culture and strengthening the bonds between our nations. Finally, there's competition. Our woman's team has won in their heat two years in a row, but after the scores were racked and stacked, didn't qualify to race again. The men's team ranked third among the sister services, so they're hungry for the top spot. If you want to show your Air Force pride and help the team row to victory, here's your chance. Dragon boat racing may seem intimidating and yes, getting up early for 5 a.m. practices is rough. I live in Yomitan! But it's all worth it on race day. Rain or shine, you can feel the energy and excitement from the racing teams and spectators. When you sit in that boat on race day and hear the crowd cheer for YOUR team, I guarantee you'll agree it was worth all the hard work. On a final note, I would not be writing this if I didn't feel anybody could join this team. I'm not an Iron Man triathlete. I just care about my health and fitness and being on the dragon boat team is a great "When I was stationed in Okinawa, I did this" story. So take advantage of this great opportunity and unleash your inner dragon! To volunteer for the Air Force men's and women's teams, send an e-mail to Senior Airman Sereena Harmon at firstname.lastname@example.org or meet the team at the Overton Pool Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5 a.m. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.